Jeff Pearlman

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Junior Seau and the plight of the ex-athlete

By now we’ve had a week to think about Junior Seau’s death; to reflect on his football legacy and to decide, in our own minds, whether his suicide was caused by too many hits to the head, too much physical pain, etc … etc.

Here’s my take: Retired professional athletes are not designed to live long.

What I mean by this is simple: You are born and bred to do something. You do it—to the highest possible level. You are hailed and celebrated and praised and honored and cheered and sought after. Women love you, kids worship you, fans hang your photographs in their homes. You have a very precise, very detailed, very structured life. You rarely have to write a check or pay a bill. Your meals are provided, your flights booked.

Then—pfft. Over.

It doesn’t compute. Or make sense. In many cases, you are a physical shell of your former self. Your muscles, once fast and quick, have been pounded and dulled. Your instincts are slow. You struggle to get out of bed every morning, because your back has been cracked 15 times and your knees are like dumbbells.

No one makes plans for you. Your wife is tired of you. Your kids barely know you. Sure, you have a college degree. But you’re in your mid-30s, without any relevant career experience. People love talking about that game against the Colts. But those same people have no interest in making you an executive vice president. You once earned $1.3 million annually. Much of that money is gone, and now you can’t crack $40,000. Someone suggests opening a bar … a restaurant. But you don’t have the capital. You think about writing an autobiography, but nobody cares these days. Publishing companies don’t return your calls. As Eminem says, “You’re cold product.”

This is what it is to be an ex-athlete.

Alone.

Depressed.

Hurting.

Sad.

Lost.

  • sanford

    I know the percentage of athletes that get in financial trouble is high. I don’t know how many people SI interviewed when the did a story on the financial troubles that ex athletes run in to. It was pretty high and seems like a lot. You can’t force them to save money for the future. Most athletes think it will never end. Many of them are poorly educated have no clue how to invest wisely. You have to wonder what their agents are doing. Shouldn’t they be investing their clients money in a safe manner instead of getting involve in risky investments such as restaurants.

  • John tosner

    I agree it’s difficult for pro athletes to make a smooth transition from playing at the highest level to a semi-normal life, but I think it is better for athletes today then it was 10 – 15yrs ago. Instead of fading into obscurity today’s athletes have more options to stay in the public conscious, and close to the game they love. Former athletes and coaches entering the media ranks is more popular than ever and provides a viable option once their playing or coaching careers have ended. These opportunities did not exist 10 – 15 yrs ago. And I think a lot of people, like myself, really enjoy their perspective and first-hand insights.

    As for the finances of pro athletes. They are no different then the millions of other people who find it difficult to stay, and spend within their means. There are as many financial success stories as there are failures. However, because it’s a former athlete who was making millions, it’s makes for better press. You’ll find the same stories of financial success and failure in Hollywood. When it comes to managing money and personal finances, you have people who do it well and those who don’t, regardless of background or education. What transpired on Wall Street is a good example. Some very smart people lost personal fortunes and almost put the US into another great depression.

  • Jeff

    Depressing tales of the plight of the ex-athlete have have been reported to the point of cliche. Is it that much different, or any worse than the experience of the non-athlete?

    Part of aging includes having your contributions overlooked, and your income reduced as you witnes your career, family and friends vanish one at a time. I’m not sure that Champion Thoroughbreds have it any worse in retirement than millions of broken down plowhorses. Junior Seau is a tragic figure. So is Willy Loman.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life